The inconclusive declaration that followed the talks on Syria here in Geneva over the  weekend seems certain to  further diminish the credibility of Kofi Annan and the United Nations itself, but the real losers will be the Syrian public caught in the rage of a dying dictatorship and the Russians and Chinese who seem incapable of severing ties with  their murderous client state. William Dowell in Geneva reports:

After having supported Libya’s dictator, Muammar Gadaffi,  to the bitter end,  the Russians and Chinese  now appear determined to follow the same course with Syria, only this time they are likely to end by alienating virtually the entire Arab world in the process.   So far the only support the Russians have received is from Iran, which is hardly beloved by its Arab its neighbors.  A Russian diplomat recently explained that Moscow’s rational was quite simple: Syria represents Russia’s last toe hold in the region and if it loses outs investment in the Syrian regime, it will be cut off from the region entirely.  By holding on to Assad, however, Russia is even more likely to be seen as a pariah.  The Chinese seem to be tagging along after  the Russians  mostly in order not to avoid setting a precedent for international interventions. They are understandably nervous about international reactions if Tibet becomes more clamorous for its claims to independence, and then there is always Taiwan.

The rationale behind the ambivalent document signed in Geneva on Saturday is hard to understand, unless one counts it as yet another delaying tactic.   US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, says she came away from the meeting with the conviction that the Russians will now put pressure on Assad to step down. From this optic,  the weekend discussion could be seen as a gesture intended to allow the Russians to save face while giving them wiggle room to increase pressure on Assad to make a discrete exit.  Clinton could at least console herself with the notion that a framework for an eventual transition has effectively been put in place in the event that Assad eventually does decide to step down, even though it is hard to see at this point why he would want to do so.  The foreign ministers of France and Britain declared after the meeting that as far as they are concerned, Assad is already a goner.

In contrast to all the  wishful thinking, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, sounded positively triumphant. Lavrov’s satisfaction focused on the fact that the document does not directly call for Assad’s immediate ouster. Instead it proposes a transitional government that is mutually acceptable to Assad’s backers as well as to the insurgents who want to overthrow him. Everyone admits that that is not likely to happen. What it is likely to do is to  give Assad and his henchmen more time to work on annihilating the insurgency.

Lest anyone get the wrong impression, both Assad’s supporters and the insurgents immediately dismissed the Geneva declaration as irrelevant and having no practical bearing on anything that is happening in the field.  That’s not quite true. What the document does do is to guarantee another few months of inaction, so that the slaughter can continue.

In the meantime, Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-moon seemed to be holding on to  Kofi’s original 6-point plan which operates on the assumption  that it may still be possible, in spite of everything that he has done, for  Assad to actually remain in the government.  It is hard to imagine anyone actually believing that at this stage in the game.  It is possible that Kofi kept to the unrealistic possibility in order to convince Assad to get at least get some kind of dialogue started, but it is unfortunate that in publicly advocating something that is patently not going to happen his own credibility was put into question.  If hundreds, if not thousands of innocent Syrians were not dying while Syria’s delaying tactics dragged on, the potential repercussions might not be so serious.

Kofi’s role in this must be seen as something of a tragedy.  Kofi was unquestionably the finest and best loved UN Secretary General since Dag Hammerskjold. He is a skilled and immensely effective negotiator,  and it is a shame to see his reputation diminished by the intractability of people that are far less decent than he is.  But that said, it is hard to see how anyone can seriously think that anything less than a clean sweep is now acceptable in Syria.

The real question is whether ridding the country of Assad is enough. Is Assad  personally responsible for the atrocious attacks against the Syrian public that we have seen lately, or is it the entire Alaouite-dominated Syrian military structure? It seems more likely that not only Assad, but his entire vindictive clique will need to go.  That may only happen after an all-out civil war.  No one in the region harbors illusions that intervention by Nato, the US or European nations acting on their own would help matters.  The US, especially, seems concerned not to help unidentified insurgents whose ultimate goals are not that clear. that is    a roundabout way of saying that the US does not want to end up inadvertently supplying volunteers from Al-Qaeda.

In a sense, the Syrian fiasco is also a tragedy for Sergei Lavrov.  I can remember having a pleasant lunch with Lavrov when he was still Russia’s ambassador to the UN in New York.  He is an elegant and sophisticated diplomat, and clearly a brilliant man.  Unfortunately, the job of a diplomat is often to execute policies that are decided by others.  In this case, it is possible that Lavrov is not so much making policy as he is following instructions from less sophisticated policy makers in Moscow.  He may be living out his own tragedy.

William Dowell is a journalist and editor based in Geneva. 

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